Sports, netters feud over Columbia summer chinook

By Allen Thomas, Columbian outdoors reporter

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The Coastal Conservation Association is urging the start of gillnetting for Columbia River summer chinook be delayed 10 to 14 days in June to improve sport fishing.

Not surprisingly, the idea got a frigid response from lower Columbia commercial fishermen at the fisheries planning meeting this week in Vancouver.

June 16 to July 31 is the summer chinook management period in the Columbia downstream of Priest Rapids Dam. A strong run of 91,900 is forecast to enter the river, with about half over Bonneville Dam by July 1.

Summer chinook harvests are split between the Columbia River treaty tribes, the Colville tribe, sport fishermen in the upper Columbia and sportsmen in the middle and lower Columbia.

Downstream of Priest Rapids Dam, the non-Indian summer chinook allocation is split equally between sport and tribal fishermen.

In 2010, the commercials caught almost 4,800 summer chinook from their allocation of 5,450. They fished two nights — June 18 and 23.

Sportsmen fished daily for all six weeks and kept about 2,650 salmon while releasing 1,375. Sportsmen could keep only fin-clipped hatchery fish.

Ed Wickersham of Ridgefield, CCA-Washington's government relations chairman, said delaying the commercial fishery could help by having more chinook in the river during mid-June when the water is cooler and the salmon bite better.

The nets can catch their share whenever they fish, he said.

"You need to allow the recreational fishery time to perform,'' Wickersham said. "You're kidding yourselves to think gillnetting 110 miles of river does not have a significant impact.''

Harry Barber, a CCA member from Washougal, said the weakest stock of upper Columbia spring chinook migrate latest and have not necessarily passed Bonneville by mid-June.

Since the sport fishery only keeps fin-clipped fish, delaying the start of gillnetting gives those salmon an extra measure of protection, he added.

Wickersham said the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife is asking for a sport-fishing license increase.

"Reward the people who are carrying the water,'' he said.

Commercial fishing interests say they want to start netting June 16.

Jim Wells of Salmon For All, an Astoria-based commercial group, said sportsmen chose to release unclipped summer chinook when it was not necessary for conservation needs.

Darren Crookshanks, president of the Columbia River Fisheries Protective Union, said about 40 commercial fishermen leave for Alaska between June 16 and June 21. A June 16 start gives them a chance to participate in the summer chinook fishery.

Wells said sportsmen complain about the nets incidental catch of sturgeon, sockeye and steelhead during summer.

"Better to get us in, get our fish and get out,'' he said. "Then there's less complaining about bycatch.''

"I'm not to sure we need to wait too long on that summer fishery,'' added John McKinley, a Wahkiakum County commercial fisherman.

Cindy LeFleur, Columbia River policy coordinator for Washington, said a compromise may be possible.

A buffer of spring chinook salmon is set aside to protect against the run coming in smaller than forecast. If the run is close to the forecast, that buffer can be added to fisheries.

Spring chinook fishing is scheduled to close on April 5. She mentioned reopening chinook fishing as early as May 16 if enough fish are available.

Wickersham and Barber said if that were the case, commercial fishing on June 16 would be acceptable.

A final decision on the sport and commercial season will be made in mid-April.